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E-mail policies at different levels

All state departments have e-mail policies, but in the end, agencies rely on good judgment and honest employees to keep the policy in check.
Sunday, April 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:56 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

State

Most state departments have a policy covering e-mail use and they must give this information to new employees.

A review of e-mail policies at 11 of 17 state departments found that seven allow personal e-mails and four prohibit them.

The Missouri Department of Conservation, for example, allows the occasional personal use of the department’s computer resources during rest breaks, lunch periods or before and after work. The Department of Mental Health allows employees to use “electronic communications” for personal use as long as it’s “limited” and doesn’t interfere with work.

Attempting to rein in the policies and create a singular focus for the 47,168 e-mail accounts in the state’s system is something Gerry Wethington, the chief information officer for the state of Missouri, is working on.

Wethington is a member of the Information Technology Advisory Board, which oversees the use of technology in state departments. In the coming months, the board’s Privacy Committee will turn its attention to the Internet. One goal will be to establish a universal set of state rules.

“I’m confident guidelines are relatively consistent,” Wethington said. “Implementation is where we probably need consistency.”

The committee will also draft policies and guidelines for online transactions and electronically submitted data.

The Department of Economic Development, one of the seven allowing personal e-mails, limits use to breaks or lunch hour, while the Department of Revenue allows personal communications that are “urgent or extremely difficult or impractical to schedule outside of work hours.”

The Department of Health and Senior Services does not prohibit personal e-mails The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations only allows personal e-mail use within the department. The Department of Agriculture asks that employees “exercise good judgment.”

Good judgment is all that is needed, said Chris Whitley, associate director of the Department of Social Services.

“You can have the best policy in the world, but if you don’t have people with common sense or a moral compass, there is very little you can do,” Whitley said.

Some departments — corrections, social services, public safety, and natural resources — prohibit all personal use.

Policies at 10 of the 11 departments reviewed clearly state that employees have no expectation of privacy.

The Revenue Department’s policy is the strictest — for e-mail use and beyond: “As part of regular department business, or as part of an investigation of possible misconduct, the department may search your office, desk, electronic files, hard copy files, voice mail or other items belonging to the department.” The policy adds that where “reasonable suspicion” exists of theft, potential harm to an employee or an action that could result in immediate termination, “the department may search you and or your personal belongings, such as a briefcase or purse.”

State officials say e-mail surveillance is usually situational.

“It could be compared to the highway patrol,” said Whitley. “They don’t just pull over random people. They have to do something first that would create an inquiry.”

The Department of Revenue takes a similar position. “Someone has to have a reason to believe something is inappropriate,” said Jessica Robinson, public information officer for the Department of Revenue.

Boone County

Boone County government also delegates enforcement responsibilities to each of its offices to enforce Internet and e-mail policies for the 250 county employees with e-mail accounts.

“We don’t make it a habit of monitoring day-to-day activity,” said Mike Mallicoat, director of information technology. “We can’t cost-justify that.”

Unlike the city, the county does not prohibit personal use.

“We specify in the policy that e-mail, Internet use is for work-related business, although we don’t prohibit personal use,” Mallicoat said. “However, it should be on the person’s own time, like during lunch hour or after hours and it should be of such a nature that it doesn’t violate any of the principles listed.”

Mallicoat said all e-mail is subject to scrutiny and that employees must sign documentation certifying they are aware of the policy. A supervisor, manager or director may monitor any e-mail at any time, he said.

The county backs up its network every night and archives e-mail records off-site with a company called Data Retention Services.

— Greer Hitch, Joel Currier, Rolf Rosenkranz and Greg Miller contributed to this report.

Columbia

The city of Columbia’s latest computer Internet and e-mail use policy, approved in February 2003, prohibits employees from using e-mail for personal use. But Robert Simms, the city’s director of information services, said the rule is not enforced unless department heads suspect abuse.

Technically, Simms said, any personal e-mails violate policy. “We wouldn’t necessarily see that unless a director or supervisor asked for us to look for that to prove it was happening,” he added.

After a problem is identified, Simms said, e-mail and Internet use can then be monitored in order to collect evidence of abuse, which would then be returned to the department supervisor.

The city may, according to its policy, read or monitor any employee’s e-mail at any time. An e-mail stored on the city’s network for 90 days may be archived and stored indefinitely. If a user deletes an e-mail immediately, it’s gone for good. If not, all e-mail is backed up every night, creating a record.

The city does use software to block incoming spam and quarantines about 1,000 spam e-mails per day. “We try not to block words on a global scale because we do have our police, health, fire (departments) that may get e-mails talking about sexual predator alerts, etcetera,” he said.

One employee was fired within the last two years because of excessive Internet use, Simms said.

Simms said all employees have access to the policy, which is posted on the city’s internal network.

MU

Strict e-mail policies have caused heavy debate on many U.S. campuses. Opponents see academic freedom at stake. There has been little discussion at the MU, however, and some faculty members have no idea of the rules.

The university’s Acceptable Use Policy for information technology itself seems unclear. One subsection prohibits “unauthorized or excessive personal use” and the use of computer resources “for personal profit,” among other things. Another subsection, however, prohibits the use of equipment “for activities not directly related with the University of Missouri.” E-mails are subject to inspection if there is, among other things, “a suspicion of misconduct under University policies.”

“It’s kind of a grey area,” MU news bureau director Mary Jo Banken said. “There’s a written policy, but interpreting policy is up to a supervisor.”

Banken allows her coworkers to use e-mails and phones for private purposes as long as the use doesn’t interfere with work.

Excessive e-mailing doesn’t cost the university extra: Each campus pays a flat connectivity fee per computer terminal, which includes unlimited access to the Internet.

No one has been disciplined for e-mail usage yet, said Todd Krupa, manager for marketing at Information & Access Technology Services. As MU’s main technology provider, the office executes MU’s computer policy and manages approximately 26,000 student and 7,000 faculty and staff accounts. IATS checks daily a so-called black list that compiles e-mail addresses distributing spam.

The university doesn’t filter e-mails for written content, Krupa said. “We’re in a community where free thought is champion,” he said. “We don’t look for abnormalities. Our job is to keep the system running.”

Bradley Prager, assistant professor of German, appreciates that there hasn’t been as much discussion about Web-surfing and using e-mails to shop online as in the 1990s.

However, Prager is cautious. “I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself,” he said. “When I do shopping, I do it through my yahoo account.”

The main problem for MU’s acceptable use policy, adopted in 2000 , might be defining terms such as “excessive use” and “activities related to the university.”

“When I forward an article from the New York Times or the Onion to a colleague in the English department, I regard that as part of my professional life,” Prager said. “This chit-chat that happens online is part of work.”


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